10 Groundbreaking Medical Discoveries Not Believed In Their Time

By Jack Ripley | May 8, 2024

Milkmaid Observation Leads to Smallpox Vaccine Discovery

In the labyrinth of medical science, some discoveries defy belief. Picture skeptics' faces when groundbreaking revelations shatter the boundaries of what was once deemed impossible. From miraculous treatments to baffling phenomena, the journey of medical innovation contains many moments that challenge the very fabric of our understanding. These discoveries, born from the relentless pursuit of knowledge and the courage to question the status quo, unveil realms previously unseen. Join us as we delve into where the unimaginable becomes a reality.

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Science History Institute

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids exposed to the relatively mild cowpox virus did not develop smallpox. Jenner hypothesized that exposure to cowpox protected against smallpox. To test his theory, he inoculated a young boy with material from a cowpox lesion and then exposed him to smallpox, finding that the boy did not develop the disease.

Critics were skeptical that exposure to cowpox could confer immunity to smallpox. They doubted the validity of Jenner's hypothesis and questioned the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. They were hesitant to embrace Jenner's findings, fearing the risk associated with the vaccination procedure. Jenner's discovery laid the foundation for vaccination to prevent infectious diseases, ultimately leading to the global eradication of smallpox and saving countless lives.

Unsuccessful First Attempts Lead to Life-Saving Anesthetics

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Horace Wells, an American dentist, was one of the first to experiment with anesthetics. His experiments were sometimes unsuccessful. He often practiced on himself. The substances he was using resulted in changes in his personality, eventually putting him in prison for throwing acid at people walking past him. Yet, the Paris Medical School named him the discoverer of anesthetic gases.

Ether was the first anesthetic widely used in surgery. Dr. Crawford Long, an American physician, performed the first surgery under ether in 1842. He did not widely publicize the event. The first surgery using ether to be publicly discussed was the ether dome demonstration performed by Dr. William T.G. Morton, who was originally Wells' assistant. Morton performed the surgery to remove a tumor on the neck of the first dean of Harvard Medical School. The "ether controversy" of the 19th century arose when medical professionals doubted ether's safety and questioned its necessity. Chloroform would later replace ether as an anesthetic.